K. Chae: Bringing “Fine Art Street Photography” to South Korea and Beyond

K. Chae is South Korean photographer who travels the world to express what he sees with photography. He calls the photos he’s taken around the world “Pieces of Earth.” He studied photography in New York, and became a full time professional photographer when he settled back in Korea in 2011. In 2012, he opened an open space for photographers in Seoul, named ‘Bittarae’, and curates exhibitions for other photographers in Korea. When he’s not traveling, he works in the commercial photography field, and his list of clients include brands such as Leica Korea, Hyundai Card, and Pastel Music. Eric Kim, a contributor to the Leica blog, interviews him.

Q: It’s great to have you, K. Can you tell us about your background and how you discovered photography?

A: I was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1979. When I was 16 I moved to Honduras with my family for a year and half, and then to New York where I finished high school and college. I think moving to different countries at an early age has kind of opened up my eyes to how diverse the world really is. Before college I was actually more interested in music and drawing. But my parents didn’t like me playing music, and I was terrible at drawing though I did love it. I didn’t have a major when I enrolled into Long Island University back in 1998. My first semester I took art classes but that didn’t go too well. However that’s when I took my first B&W class and I was hooked. Next semester I changed my major to photography and never looked back.

Q: What kind of photography do you focus on?

A: I like to call my work ‘fine art street photography.’ I have the mind that of a street photographer. I try my best to keep my work real and unrehearsed, and I capture moments that are not pre-arranged. Most of the time I walk around streets and study human life. I discover special moments and capture them instantly like any other street photographer. My attention to color is what sets my work apart from other street photographers. People often comment that they confuse my photographs with paintings. I never shoot B&W, and color is always in my mind when I take picture. Color is what makes my photos unique.

Q: You currently work full time as a commercial photographer. Can you share how you were able to make your passion your profession and career?

A: To be honest, I never worried about getting a job as a photographer. I know it concerns a lot of up and coming photographers, but I’ve always been hopelessly positive. I always believed if you are the best at what you do, you will never starve. I didn’t really try to knock on doors to get a job. I just strived to be the best at what I do, and I trusted people would take notice and come knock on my door. So rather than looking for a job, I presented my works online to reach the public. For me having a blog helped to get my works out there. Once I felt my works were ready to be shown in 2009, I started to post them on the blog, and slowly but surely people started to notice. The blog became quite popular by 2010. People began to recognize my work was something different. Once I settled back in Korea in 2011, I started to get a lot of inquiries and that’s how I got started. My first client was Pastel Music, one of the biggest independent music labels in Korea. It turned out the CEO of the company is a fan of my work so he called me when he found out I was back in town. Relationships with other clients started in similar fashion most of time.

Q: Your work is quite diverse. You don’t just focus on one style or subject matter. You do commercial portrait work, landscape photography, street photography, and even photographs of animals. Do you ever feel that this can be a bit distracting for your artistic vision?

A: I do a lot diverse work, but I feel they aren’t far apart from each other. Many people mistakenly call me a travel photographer. First and foremost I consider myself to be a street photographer and my subject matter is Earth. There are many shades of earth – people, animals, landscapes, cityscapes and so on. So yes they’re diverse but in the end they’re all in one category for me. I consider them to be portraits of Earth. It might be different how I approach my subjects depending on what or whom I’m shooting, but I have developed my unique style and that keeps everything I shoot to be consistent with each other. No matter what I shoot they don’t look out of place with other works I’ve done. The colors, the compositions, all my photography principles are in place. It is by choice that my works are diverse. That actually helps me to express all my perspectives when they’re put together as a book or exhibition.

The commercial work I do is little bit different, it’s true. Record cover shoots with musicians, shooting concerts, fashion shows, and architectures are all quite different than my major body of work. But even then I do not change my principles just to please the client. I approach my subjects with a mind of a street photographer even when I’m shooting models, and because I’m a photographer not a digital artist, I always try my best to keep my work as real as possible. I don’t alter images too much. I don’t create clouds that weren’t there or erase a person just because he ruins the shot. I would just shoot without the person in it in the first place. I don’t wipe out models’ faces just to make them look beautiful. I’m not saying I don’t use Photoshop or I don’t embrace technology. Putting in my signature style of colors on my photos is a very important part of my work process, but I try my best to keep my identity as a photographer. I understand not all commercial photographers are like me but I don’t want to become a different photographer just to get paid more. So I never forget to mention what I do and what I won’t do when I meet my clients. Funny thing is I people tend to be more interested in working with me for that reason.

Q: Considering that you shoot many different styles and subject matter, in what way does shooting with your Leica help with your work?

A: The Leica M series is my primary weapon of choice. I do have a DSLR, but I only use it in cases where I’m not allowed to get close to the subjects. I also use it when it rains too much or in case of sandstorms or things like that. But in most cases I use the M9, M8, and M6. I wander the backstreets of Earth with Leica Ms around my neck. Even in commercial shoots I try all my best to only use an M. I know in many cases clients like seeing big camera bodies flying around and they give me a puzzled look when I show up with the small M bodies. But I always tell them, “Don’t care about what I shoot with. You will love the results.” And they do.

Then you could ask me why I love M so much, and why I try to use it in most of all situations, when obviously there are situations a DSLR is easier camera to do a shoot. The reason I like to do all my shoots with the Leica M-System is that because it is difficult to use. I don’t like current developments of cameras where it seems cameras make the picture for you. It sets up everything for you and all you do is press the button. I like Leica M cameras because it lets me take the picture all on my own. Sure there are situations where it’s not easy to shoot with RF camera, but I like overcoming those obstacles and proving that it can be done. Most of all, I think I like using them because I believe a good photograph begins even before a photo is taken, from the mind of a photographer. M helps me to be in that right mindset.

Q: You opened up a new gallery in Mullae in Seoul. Can you share what inspired you to open it and what visions you have for it?

A: I came back to my home country in late 2011. I decided I would base myself in Seoul and start working actively as a professional photographer. At first I was just looking for a workspace, then I found Mullae. Mullae is a unique place in Seoul. You could say it’s like DUMBO in Brooklyn. It has lots of old factory buildings and artists started to move there for the cheap rent. But after few years now it’s slowly becoming an artists’ haven. I fell in love with this place and wanted to be a part of it. So I gathered three photographers who share my same vision, called it ‘Bittarae’ and the four of us started the space back in March. Since we aren’t studio photographers, we decided we would primarily use the space as a gallery. Not only for ourselves, but also for emerging photographers who weren’t getting a chance to exhibit their work elsewhere. We had 8 exhibitions last year alone, and more are coming in 2013. Our vision is to make Bittarae the go-to place to meet the best up-and-coming photographers in Seoul and where photographers can go to just talk about photography with their peers. Online chatting is good, but I feel you learn more when you’re face to face with others. I am hoping this place to be where photographers can meet each other and interact.

Q: You published three photography books at the same time on Havana, Cuba; Lisbon, Portugal; and Siem Reap, Cambodia. You called this the Pieces Of Earth series. What is the concept behind your books and what are some other destinations you wish to put into a book?

A: Pieces of Earth is a life long project of mine. As I documented different shades of Earth, I wondered how I would sort and present them as books. I decided publishing books with each volume concentrating on a given city would be the best way to go. I plan to publish at least one piece of Earth every year to continue the series. In the end I hope to have volumes of 50 or more photography books each with my photographic perspectives of cities all over the world. When it’s all said and done the collection will be pieced together to show how I see Earth as a whole. So I’m more excited about the series’ future than its present. When I have about 10 books published, it will begin to show more of my vision.

This year I originally planned to make a book on Istanbul, but it could change. After releasing the first three books, I’m taking a detour to release a photography essay this year. There is a very small market for photography books in Korea. Koreans in general prefer photography essays where stories accompany photographs. I didn’t want to publish such a book at first. I wanted to be recognized first and foremost as a photographer, not a writer. But in the end I reconciled that it would help me to reach a broader audience and make my work more public. The book is tentatively titled Nothing’s Impossible To Photograph. It’s a book that showcases my work and tells the stories behind them. By telling how those photos are made, I hope to prove there’s nothing you can’t photograph regardless of what kind of camera or lens you have. I’m writing the book in hopes of proving that a good photographer makes a good photograph.

Q: When you fall into a creative slump, what helps you climb out of it?

A: I don’t exactly go through slumps. I just love what I do and I never want to stop shooting and take a rest. I have a camera with me at all times. Sometimes the result doesn’t come out the way I wanted it to. So I just go back at it. I go to that place again, and shoot again until I get what I’m satisfied with. I feel blessed to have a job I love and I don’t have to force myself to do it just because it’s a ‘job.’ I love it so much that I never really find myself in a slump. There’s always so much to be done with a camera in my hand.

Q: When it comes to inspiration, which photographers have influenced you?

A: My biggest inspiration has always been Elliott Erwitt. I feel anybody can make extraordinary images of extraordinary things. I believe great photographers are the ones who can make extraordinary out of the ordinary, and Elliott Erwitt has done that all his life. Another big inspiration comes from Willy Ronis. He said, “we do not see what is real, we see who we are.” That is my favorite photography quote of all time. I like Willy Ronis in particular for his ability to capture positive emotions out of his subjects. In Korea there’s one photographer who I have a lot of respect for named MongGak Jeon. He had published only one photography book in his career, titled Yoonmi’s Home. He shot his daughter Yoonmi from her birth until she got married in her early 20s. It’s very personal and shows how Korea and Korean families were like back in 60s and 70s. More than anything I love how he made his compositions and how he was able to continue on with one subject matter for such a long time, even if it was his daughter.

It’s funny that I never shoot B&W and colorful vibrant imagery is my bread and butter, and yet all the photographers I like are B&W photographers. I like their philosophy on photography, and how they have distinctive principles they stick to. Frankly I don’t feel there’s much to be learned from today’s photographers. Everything about photography I learned, I learned from masters in the early 1900s. I feel what photographers’ need to learn the most is not fancy Photoshop skills but principles. The principles photographers must learn were all said and done by those in the early years of photography. How we take a photograph changes and evolves over the years, but the principles a photographer must have do not change, in my humble opinion.

Q: How would you currently describe the photography scene in Seoul and where do you see yourself in it?

A: Photography has been pretty big in Seoul, and South Korea as a whole, for many years. You see Koreans with huge cameras and lens everywhere you go. But it only means there are many people with expensive cameras, not that there are more photographers. In Korea there isn’t much diversity when it comes to photography. Interestingly enough Korea’s photography scene is divided in two: one being commercial and the other being fine art. I find myself in the middle. Both sides don’t exactly interact with each other. A market for documentary/street photography hardly exists in Seoul. Except for the huge Magnum exhibitions they seem to hold every year. In Korea, fine art people find my work too commercial, and commercial people find my work too fine art. I strive to be a photographer for the masses, but that doesn’t mean it has to be commercial. I feel it is possible to satisfy both sides, and so I don’t try to fit into any of the current molds. I am trying to create that ‘middle’ market myself, with the growing numbers of photographers like me who don’t belong in today’s Korean photography scene.

Q: Can you tell us about three of your personal favorite photographs?

A: Vinarez, Cuba. 2011 – This photo is a portrait of a girl I met in Cuba. She was a daughter of a woman in the Casa I stayed in Vinarez. She was only two years old and very smart. One day it rained hard so I had to come back to my casa earlier than I wanted. I was not in a good mood because I really wanted to be out there shooting. When I walked inside this girl saw me and walked straight up to me. She looked up at me and demanded I take her picture. I had an M8 in my hand and right then I took her picture. I knew the photo would be something special right after I pressed the shutter. She demanded I show her the picture, so I did. She gave me a nod of approval and ran away to her sister. Sometimes a great image finds you, but you need to be ready at all times to seize that moment. That day, I was.

Melbourne, Australia. 2012 – Melbourne is my type of city. There are so many little streets it’s like a maze. Their lanes and arcades kept me on my toes as I walked day in and day out. I was in the famous Centre Place in the early morning. Having been there a day before, I knew I wanted to be there early in the morning to find something interesting. I walked around that small street over and over and finally I saw this girl. The way the colors of her clothes matched her workplace really grabbed my attention. When I saw her drop down to write out the menu, I knew right then it would be a great photo.

Waikiki, Hawaii. 2009 – A Waikiki sunset is a sight to behold. I wanted to shoot the sunset but I wanted it to be different. Everybody was on the edge of the beach to capture the sun gong down over the ocean. I figured I should capture not only beautiful colors made by this sunset but a sense of place as well so I stepped back away from others. I saw big palm trees and people waiting for the sunset lined up right next to it. That’s how this photo was made. Honestly if wasn’t my all time favorite photo at first. But it seems to be very popular among people at my exhibitions. It became one of my signature photographs and became special to me as well.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?

A: After I established myself little bit here in Korea, I started to get many emails from aspiring photographers and they all seem to have same concerns. They say they love photography and want to become a photographer, but they’re not sure if they’ll be able to make a living out of it. It’s obvious not all photographers are well paid. Only a handful of photographers make enough money to live comfortably and most others struggle just to pay the bills. But if it is what you really want to do, you have to embrace consequences and just keep working at it. It won’t be easy. There isn’t really an overnight sensation in photography. You have to spend years perfecting your craft and gathering enough work to put together as an exhibition or a book. I started photography in 1998 and when I finally felt I was ready and my work was ready to get out there, it was 2010. After 12 years spent doing it. I believe there’s no short cut when it comes to becoming a great photographer. Patience is a virtue.

Q: Are there certain people you would like to give a shout out to or recommend people to check out their work?

A: I’d like to recommend the photographers who share the space, Bittarae, with me. They might not be the best in Korea yet, but they are who I believe will be a part of a new movement in Korean photography scene and beyond in the future.

Jun Michael Park

Gwang Chan Song

SeongGyu Baek

Q: Anything else you would like to share that I haven’t asked you yet?

A: I’d like to tell you a little about what I’m doing in the near future. I plan on traveling to Africa for 2 months in January. I will have an exhibition to benefit African children after I come back. I hope to find more ways to use my photography for charity. My photo essay book will be released in late 2013 and hopefully a sizeable solo exhibition will accompany the release of the book. This year I also plan to get my work out of Korea and hold exhibitions overseas as well. Then I plan to travel to South America at the end of the year.

Thanks for your time, K!

-Leica Internet Team

To learn more about K. Chae and view more of his images, visit his website and Facebook.